'Gold Coast' ('Guldkysten'): Karlovy Vary Review

Gold Coast Movie Still - H 2015

Gold Coast Movie Still - H 2015

An ambitious but flawed first film.

This first fiction feature of Swedish-born editor-turned-director Daniel Dencik stars Jakob Oftebro as a naive coffee plantation owner in Danish Guinea in the 1830s.

A green coffee plantation owner from the Old Continent finds out the hard way that Danish Guinea isn’t exactly the Edenic paradise of his dreams in Gold Coast (Guldkysten), the feature fiction debut of Stockholm-born Danish multi-hyphenate Daniel Dencik. Set in 1836, when -- at least theoretically -- the Danish slave trade has been over for decades, this impressively assembled feature sheds some semi-impressionistic light on that uneasy period of transition, when owning slaves was still legal but buying or selling them was not, creating a murky moral quandary for the supposedly principled protagonist. Beautifully shot on location, with a handheld aesthetic combined with a saturated palette of greens, blues and whites, and scored by Angelo Badalamenti with his usual ethereal verve, this certainly looks and sounds like a prestige picture. Still, the writing lacks enough acuity and insight to win over the arthouse faithful offshore, while the film’s not narrative-driven enough to work as a straightforward historical drama. Just like its protagonist, Gold Coast finds itself in something of a no man’s land.

With his carefully groomed blond locks and beard, angular cheekbones and freshly pressed clothes, Wulff (Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, Kon Tiki) looks immediately out of place in Danish Guinea or the Gold Coast (roughly today’s Ghana), where he arrives as the narrative kicks off. As one of the supporting characters notes, rather ominously: he “smells of Denmark, of innocence”.

A botanist by trade, the naively enthusiastic 28 year-old has been granted a patch of Danish Guinea by his king to start a coffee plantation. The head of state hopes Wullf will “give (him) a garden instead of a graveyard,” as explained in an early voice-over, in which Wullf reads letters to his fiancée, whom he’s left at home for this 18-months-long adventure. (The screenplay was partly inspired by real characters, letters and diaries and features a lot of voice-over.)

Since the film opens in media res, with Wullf in prison and urinated on by two of his captors and compatriots, it’s clear from the start that his time in Africa won’t exactly be an idyllic vacation. And throughout the film, which was written by Dencik with Sara Isabella Jonsson, the story proper keeps being pushed aside for either insights into Wullf’s evolving emotional state or telling or odd details about biology (shell shapes in particular), colonial government or running a plantation.

This may surprise and even annoy audiences looking for a more conventionally told story but these choices make sense when one considers Dencik’s background. He has not only edited several features, including several of Icelandic filmmaker Dagur Kari’s, but also written screenplays (an early work is Daniel Espinosa’s Outside Love, which starts the director’s brother, renowned actor David Dencik) and novels. He’s also a documentary director, with his 2013 opus, The Expedition to the End of the World,having a direct connection to this work, as it looks at people exploring one of the last undiscovered crannies of the world in Greenland, though most of the protagonists turn out to be looking for themselves.

Wullf wasn’t looking for himself necessarily but circumstances force him to find himself anyway and take an active stand. Even upon his arrival, it is clear this man of science is more interested in nature than in religion, and you can basically see him cringe when the hardhearted local governor (Morten Holst) says that “a good feature of the nigger is that he can’t feel pain”. Wullf’s more open to a doctrine that some of the more levelheaded missionaries are bringing to the colony, where some people consider that “even ‘shadows’ are children of the light”. It’s through Wullf’s limited interaction with the Danish people there -- except for his slave boy, Lumpa (John Aggrey, still a child), the native population is present but rather anonymous -- that viewers have to piece together an idea of how the protagonist’s ideas and morals are evolving, though the voice-over also helps in this regard. And Oftebro is a charismatic enough performer to hold the screen even if a scene’s intentions aren’t always immediately clear.

The point of no return comes after Wullf discovers that the Ashanti tribe has destroyed his plantation, and that this has also happened a few times before his arrival. Instead of lashing out violently against the aggressors, as the normal response of his compatriots seems to be, he seeks the diplomatic aid of a merchant who knows the Ashanti king. It’s here that the protagonist’s understanding of the grievances of the locals, and their humanity, starts to take root. Occasionally resorting to surreal imagery (the transitions aren’t always smooth), the film attempts to paint a picture of the evolving state of Wullf’s mind. This finally leads him to free slaves that have been captured illegally, though thankfully, Dencik’s direction is restrained in this sequence, avoiding a white-savior moment for the lead and instead simply illustrating the fact Wullf is finally acting on his conscience. 

It’s a brave and ambitious first film to have made for sure, though one can only wonder what a more experienced might have done with the same material.

Production companies: Haslund, Dencik Entertainment, Film I Vast, Ingenius Africa

Cast: Jakob Oftebro, Danica Curcic, John Aggrey, Adam Ild Rohweder, Anders Heinrichsen, Morten Holst, Luise Skov, Mikkel Hilgart, Wakefield Ackuaku

Director: Daniel Dencik

Screenplay: Daniel Dencik, Sara Isabella Jonsson

Producer: Michael Haslund-Christensen

Director of photography: Martin Munch

Production designer: Liselotte Justesen

Costume designer: Jane Marshall Whittaker

Editors: Theis Schmidt, Rebekka Lonqvist

Music: Angelo Badalamenti

No rating, 115 minutes